Rahman Abbas’s Rohzin is a story that lives in the interstices of reality and imagination. It is peopled by characters who are as real as they are flawed, men and women shaped by currents of history they might not even recognize. It unfolds, for the most part, in Mumbai of the early 2000s, moving through time to the rhythm of an unregulated beat.

Plunging the reader into the devastation caused by the Mumbai floods of 2005, the novel has a rather portentous start, marking the tragedy of what seem to be star-crossed lovers. “It was the last day in the lives of Asrar and Hina”, it announces. Asrar, our protagonist, a Konkani Muslim of Zoroastrian descent, loses his fisherman father in an accident at sea at a young age. To support his mother and in pursuit of a sense of self, he decides to move to Mumbai and find work.

Asrar’s discovery of and immersion in the multiple worlds of Mumbai, even more than his falling in love with Hina at first sight, is perhaps the love story at the heart of the novel. Translated from the Urdu by Sabika Abbas Naqvi, Rohzin tells many stories of love and desire, most of which transcend romance and focus instead on the complexities of being, the many shades of melancholy, and of finding meaning in the ordinariness of everyday.

Arriving in Mumbai

Asrar, in all his years at the coastal village of Mabadmorpho, has known Mumbai only through Hindi cinema, particularly that of the 1990s. He arrives in Mumbai on May 1, Maharashtra Day, and is immediately pulled into the crowds, the noise, the squalor of a confined space shared by too many bodies.

The city he encounters and that the reader encounters through him, has lesser glitz, more grit than what he has seen on screen. Mumbai demands all his attention and Asrar is eager to oblige. In only a few months, it becomes home and refuge: “Mumbai had a special attraction for him, and he liked everything he saw. There was hunger in his eyes and restlessness in his heart that made him want to see the city. He passed these roads very regularly but every time he would come face to face with something new. Asrar was a keen observer. Life’s varied perspectives invited him to be their witness. He wanted to be an onlooker of every street, every road, every building, every turn and every direction of the city. Mumbai was a net that had now entrapped him.”

Asrar’s Mumbai is not the charming seductress of Bollywood. It is a city conscious of the rifts that exist within it. Rohzin shows the reader the underbelly of the city – drug addicts, the homeless, beggars, sex workers, victims of sexual abuse – without the narrative descending into either poverty porn or platitudes.

Mumbai, the city that stays forever

Abbas bolsters these images with little snippets of history, establishing Mumbai as not just the site for the playing out of the drama of his protagonists’ lives but as a character in its own right. In describing the Minara mosque, close to Asrar’s kholi, he writes: “...those minarets had been witness to the springs and the dark nights of this city. They had witnessed the elaborate gatherings and long processions, the chaos and the political battles. They had watched the discriminations of creed and religion.”

People come and go but the city stays forever, he seems to say. The narrative is interspersed with references to incidents of communal violence, of rioting, of terrorist activity, that have disrupted life in the city over and over again but have never quite managed to quash its spirit. The city stands witness and the city exacts its price.

Abbas’s Mumbai, handed over to Asrar, is also the city of its patron goddess, Mumba Devi. Legend and folklore weave together, knitting stories of Mumba Devi and djinns and Sufis and mystics who together watch over the city. The goddess, as whimsical as she is protective, visits deities in other cultures, converses with djinns and angles/ferishte, and keeps watch on her people.

The author imagines a syncretic circle of concern where “when there is bloodshed of innocents on Mohammed Ali Road, the blood flows underground through the drains to reach the temple of Mumba Devi before heading to the sea.” It is foretold that the goddess will rise to fight evil when barbarism, cruelty and injustice reach a pinnacle.

Abbas details the acts of violence that have threatened Mumbai, reaching into the past as well as the future. Evil, as is obvious in these references, already holds the city in its grip, bringing closer this particular version of the day of reckoning and judgement.

Pushing the boundaries of the acceptable

Abbas makes a study of human relationships in the novel, privileging desire and truthfulness to the self over all else. Well into the book, he explains “rohzin” as the melancholy of the soul, an affliction that can be cured by the ecstasy of lovemaking. Sex then becomes the affirmation of life and desire, something to be embraced, outside of the bounds of conventional morality or socially sanctioned relationships. Abbas models a range of relationships based on desire, all consensual and yet, some that cannot but be seen as problematic, like when a teenager purportedly seduces a man ten years older because she believes that desire must never be denied, or when a teacher confesses her passionate love for the student she has had a physical relationship with.

Asrar distinguishes between love and sex, seeing them as coexistent and independently valid, but not interconnected. While love is about mutual adoration and surrender, sex is for pleasure and “freedom from the restlessness of the soul, a search for satisfaction of the heart.” Characters in the novel are often in search of this elusive satisfaction, never quite finding it in the repetitiveness of the quotidian. Resolutely, the novel pushes the boundaries of the acceptable, legitimizing the claims of the body, and rejecting the constraints of religion.

Abbas brings a deft playfulness to his difficult subject. The novel is rich in atmospherics, serving up a regular fare of portents, dreams, and nightmares. In addition to djinns and goddesses, human behaviour and all its foibles are under the observation of animals, demons, even statues, essentially, the world outside the anthropocentric. It is the sort of surreal world in which a python licks the picture of a politician on a hoarding and the man subsequently dies.

In one of many interesting asides, Abbas constructs a brilliant history of an ancient manuscript titled “The Book of Knowledge of All Worlds”, a volume that its keepers insist must never fall into the hands of religious men, lest they destroy the world with its truths. In the landscape of the novel, the real collides with the imagined repeatedly, and history joins hands with folklore. Abbas’s scaffolding is irreverent, his structure taut, and his narrative as unpredictable as the rains that lash Mumbai, bearing both, the promise of romance and the threat of annihilation.

Rohzin, Rahman Abbas, translated from the Urdu by Sabika Abbas Naqvi, Penguin India.